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The Best of Jim Baen's Universe
By Eric Flint
Baen Publishing EnterprisesCopyright © 2007 Eric Flint
All right reserved.
SCIENCE FICTION STORIES
by Garth Nix
The seven rings of Syrene shine Like glowing disks in a nazdra mine Burning brighter than fusion fire ...
"How long is this bullshit going to last?" Assault Sergeant Gillies whispered to his neighbor, Base Sergeant Major Traut.
"Long as it wants to," Traut muttered back. "It's the CG's poem. Lukas is just reading it."
"The golden whorl of Syrene's seas
"Swirl in torrents as they please ..."
"Didn't Syrene take a Xene transformer bomb in '06?" whispered Gillies.
"Yeah," replied Traut. "But it was partially damped. Navy showed up just in time. Mind you, Syrene was a real dump before the trannie bomb. The xeneform went about halfway. Gave the planet dust rings and turned the oceans sort of murky yellow with sparkly bits. Killed everyone at the time, of course. But the general's from one of the later settlements. Tourist operators."
"So come to Syrene, make a start
"But be prepared to lose your heart."
"More like your wallet," Traut added in an aside to Gillies, as thunderous applause filled the amphitheatre. It wasn't actually the end of the poem, but the troops couldn't cope with any more, so they'd taken advantage of a meaningful pause to clap. Since it was officially rec-time, the clapping was swiftly followed by an exodus to the low port accessway, and the fallway to the Other Ranks Club.
Gillies and Traut waited for the initial rush to subside, let the few unfortunate officers who been trapped into attending go, then made a stately exit to the topside ascensor, heading for the sergeant's mess.
As the ascensor lift gripped him, Gillies looked back at Lukas, to see whether he was still going with the poem. But the unfortunate Lieutenant Lukas, head of the Cultural Events committee, was obviously receiving some fairly harsh words over his implant com. Probably a critique from the commanding general for his stupidity in pausing long enough for the troops to applaud, Gillies thought. Just as he was wondering what it would be like to get a personal tongue-lashing from Major General Orosonne, his own tongue tingled, alerting him to a communication.
"Sergeant Gillies, this is ComOp. You back on?"
"Uh, not exactly. What have you got?" Gillies subvocalized.
"Got a Navy 'at your convenience.' Report to Dock Three, navy cargo master. Logged at 2130. ComOp Out."
"Got it," Gillies affirmed. Traut, seeing the characteristic twitch of the muscles in his neck, raised her single surviving eyebrow in query-a characteristic gesture that could make junior officers and other ranks whimper, but Gillies and Traut were old comrades.
"A navy 'when you can but right now would be best if you don't want me to complain to the captain,'" Gillies explained. "Dock Three."
"Time for a drink first, then," said Traut genially, touching her ID bracelet against the sergeant's mess door. It slid back, revealing a glimpse of walnut paneling (ersatz), thick rugs (tylarn), leather lounges (havax cloth), alcoholic beverages (synthesized), and senior NCOs (not strictly human).
"No, I'd better get over there. The navy's probably caught one of my people trying to steal a cargo vessel or something. Who's cargo master on Three?"
"Berzis. Chief P.O. Rule merchant. Bit of a shithead."
"Can't be theft, then. Berzis would just call the MPs for inter-service borrowing. If it doesn't take too long, I'll take you up on that drink."
"Okay," said Traut. "But you might want an early night. The whisper is a full-sim boarding ex tomorrow for your lot. 0320 or thereabouts. A surprise."
She smiled, made an unorthodox salute in the direction of the Second Battalion HQ, topside and starboard, and disappeared into the mess. Gillies turned back to the ascensor, cursing the battalion CO. They'd only just got back from an on-planet assault exercise. Hostile environment, pulling 3Gs, in an atmosphere pretty much the same as the shit they cleaned the drains with back on the garrison station. Full-sim meant occasional live fire too, which was why Gillies was temporarily in charge of the assault engineer platoon. The lieutenant had been shuttled out yesterday, back to civilization and a hospital where they could regrow his left hand and eye, instead of the combat replacement prosthetics the garrison hospital practically bolted on before sending you back out.
Not that there was an "out" just at the moment. The Fourth Xene War had ended three years before, in a series of inconclusive engagements in the Hogawan system, resulting in an armed truce. Which was why the 203rd Marine Brigade was in garrison, on a navy-run converted battlewagon, brought out of mothballs and put in orbit around the distasteful Hogawan VI. The Xenes had a similar operation in orbit around the Earth-like Hogawan III. Needless to say, the Xenes wanted H-VI and the Terrans wanted H-III. But they weren't prepared to swap. Not for the first time, Gillies considered what might happen if the troops on both sides simply shot the politicians and did a deal on the real estate. The only problem was it took about five years to learn Xene trade talk, mostly spent in learning to operate six prosthetic feelers, simulating the ones that grew out of the lump that could loosely be described as a Xene's head. Gillies had heard that the process wasn't totally reversible, either.
The ascensor bottomed out on Deck Minus, and Gillies transferred to the ring-about that would take him in a circle halfway around the ship's hull to Dock Three. The ring-about clanked every ten meters, but that was a comfortable reminder that the old TNS Sable Basilisk had extra armor bonded on in ten-meter-wide slabs, for its next but last incarnation as a planetary bombardment station. The ring-about had been converted from the missile feeder system that ran between the old and the new armor belt.
Clank-clank-clank-clank-ping-brrrr. The ping was the programmed stop for Dock Three, and the Brrr was a gravity alert. Gillies left the capsule, pushing off for a controlled somersault to the exterior rails of the cargo master's eyrie. The dock was in zero g, though there was no reason why it should be. Except that the navy pretended to like zero g.
Gillies climbed inside the eyrie, where two vac-suited figures hung relatively upside down, their visors open, fingers flying over checkcomps. Gillies spun himself, clipped on to the rail, and reoriented opposite the one with the swirling galaxies on his suit sleeves.
"Chief Berzis. Assault Sergeant Gillies."
"Oh yeah ... Sergeant Gillies. We've got a bit of a problem."
"Okay. Who is it and what have they done?" Gillies asked resignedly. He tried to think if he'd accidentally asked the boys and girls to steal something. All it took was a slip of the tongue, like, "Okay, so those stargazing perverts might have a one-portable slipscan, but we don't. So let's see this one put together in under three minutes ..."
"Don't worry, Sergeant. It's nothing like that. Fact is, we've got a shipment for you. Or part of one."
"Yeah. All the way from Sol. Pallas R&D, to be exact. Only there's supposed to be more of it."
"Pallas R&D? Addressed to me? I don't know anyone at Pallas."
"It's not personal, Sergeant. ComOp says you're acting OC of the assault engineer platoon of 2 Battalion, and that's who it's for. Some sort of new equipment you're supposed to trial, according to the transhipment explanation anyway. The only problem is that one cap is missing. Been missing since Syrene, four stops away."
"What's in the missing capsule?"
"If the manifest's right, you're missing all the frageware documentation. The instruction data, the specs, the familiarity program. The other cap, which we are about to present to you, lucky Sergeant Gillies, is the hardware. Only. Please tag the slate."
Gillies shook his head, but took the slate, read the details of the receipt, then pressed his ID bracelet against it. The slate didn't do anything until the cargo master tapped it briskly, then it flashed and gave a confirming beep, followed by a slow voice, "Log-ged at oh-seven-seven...." The cargo master tapped it again, and the slate hiccupped, before continuing, "Correction ... twenty-one fifty-two. Thank you."
"Piece of shit," muttered Berzis. "The cap's over there. Green decal, orafluoro stripes, number 0122. See it?"
"Got it," said Gillies. "Thanks, Chief. I think."
"Wait till he sees what's inside," Berzis muttered to his offsider, as Gillies adjusted the antigrav on the capsule and let it drag him over to the ring-about. "Pallas R&D! The R must be for retarded and the D for, uh, D for ..."
"Deadheads?" suggested the offsider.
Gillies took the cap down to the assault engineers workroom, checked the hazard symbols, and opened it. Naturally, this revealed more packaging, and when he'd stripped that off, still more packaging-some sort of anodized foil with a quick release ring. Gillies pulled it, looked at what was inside, leapt back, and only just prevented himself from slapping the emergency alert panel, which would open the weapon lockers, jolt every trooper on the ship in the tongue, and alert the bridge.
There was a life-form in the capsule. A thing. It was about knee-high, had a sort of cylindrical body with a smaller cylindrical head, six legs, and a tail. It was shiny black all over, and it was alive. Its head moved. It had two eyes. They looked at Gillies, and it stretched, the six legs going from sort of rubbery multijointed stilts to stiff supports. Its mouth opened, revealing a hideously wet, yellow maw and enormous saw-edged blue teeth. It yawned, snorted, and let out a sharp, short noise.
Gillies tongued his implant and subvocalized.
"ComOp. This is Gillies in 77AE1. Get me two MPs on the double with stunzers and netweb."
"Local seal. Standby. Info duty officer, possible Life-form Haz."
Gillies edged around the capsule, looking for the instruction reader that he'd seen in with the life form. The thing watched him, and licked its lips. Its tongue was also yellow.
The sergeant slowly reached for the reader, which had fallen on the floor a foot away from the creature. It stepped out of the capsule and also looked at the instructions. Gillies reached again, a bit closer. The thing edged closer too. Gillies lunged. So did the creature. Blue teeth snapped on the reader, and the thing jumped back in the capsule. The sergeant jumped back too, almost colliding with the two marine police who burst through the door, stunzer and netweb at the reader.
"Stun it!" shouted Gillies, but the MPs didn't need to be told. The one with the stunzer fired. Several times. All it did was make the creature jump out of the capsule and advance on them again. Then the other MP fired the netweb, and the creature fell over in a writhing mass of rapidly ballooning threads.
It had dropped the reader to snap at its bonds. Gillies snatched the unit up and flicked it on; as the MPs watched the thing begin to successfully chew its way through the supposedly super-toughened web. One MP looked anxiously at the emergency alert panel and twitched. The other, older one was obviously subvocalizing something, but Gillies wasn't on their net. Besides, he was reading. Quickly.
"Purple Perseans ... patrol the ... perimeter ... of Pair-sepol-eyes," he shouted, as the thing bit through the last strands of netweb around its forelegs. Nothing happened. Gillies looked at the reader again, keyed for phonetic, and hastily reread the sentence.
"Purple Persians ... patrol the ... perimeter of ... Per-sep-olis."
The thing suddenly froze in place, three of its six legs in the air.
"What happened?" asked the nervous MP. Gillies noticed he didn't take his hand too far away from the alert panel.
"Code phrase for deactivation," replied Gillies. "Apparently Xene mockers can't pronounce alliterative series starting with p. That's what it says here, anyway."
"What is that thing?" asked the other MP. He'd just subvocalized something that Gillies suspected was the cancellation of an armored squad with boarding weapons.
Gillies scrolled the reader back to the introduction, and keyed it for speech. Typically, it had an accented voice that made it difficult to follow, instead of using the military standard inflections.
"This unit is a Combat Candroid DOG 01A prototype. Designed for support use with assault engineer units, the DOG 01A is a sophisticated artificial lifeform. For reasons of durability, the body is mechanical, with a high survivability in all but Class 10X environments. Lightly armored, the DOG 01A is impervious to low-powered radiant, sonic, or projectile weapons and highly resistant to Xene solvents. Its Central Intelligence Unit is based on a Sysicram 310 multiproc, with a prototype biological intelligence and personality transfer from a Terran natural life-form, the dog variant known as a collie-shepherd cross. Prototype frageware interfaces this natural personality with the special requirements of different environments and the specialized tasks of an assault engineer unit.
"This reader has further categories: Packing Instructions, Unpacking Instructions, Basic PowerUp, and Emergency Shutdown. For full specifications, run-in procedure, and operational instructions, see separate reader CCAN-DOG-01A, classified Operational Secret. This reader is classified as Restricted. Have a nice day."
"Personality transfer?" asked the nervous MP.
"It means that this thing thinks it's a live animal," replied Gillies. "A Terran dog. Whatever that is. You guys aren't from Sol are you?"
"Jaminor IV," replied the older one. "I doubt there's anyone on Garrison from Terra. We've got a corporal from Sol Belt, but she's on one of the picquet ships. I'll call ComOp and see who they can come up with."
"Don't bother," said Gillies. "Our battalion quartermaster is supposed to be Terran-I'll talk to him tomorrow."
"You just going to leave that thing here?" asked the young MP. He still seemed nervous.
"Yeah," said Gillies. "I'll secure this reader, so it won't be able to PowerUp. Who knows, the other capsule might show up too, with the full order set."
"It's your responsibility," shrugged the older MP. "Come on, Nerik. Zoo tour over. Good luck, Sergeant."
"Thanks," said Gillies, eyeing the DOG with a jaundiced look. It was already 2305, and if there was going to be an alert at 0320, he wanted to be up and ready at 0250. He just hoped that neither the CO nor the company commander were aware that he was supposed to be checking out this new equipment, or they'd want to take it on the exercise.
"So where is the DOG unit you're evaluating, Sergeant?" Colonel Kjaskle asked as she marched down the first rank of the assault engineer platoon, her martinet's eye running over the armored shapes standing stiffly at attention, looking for any deviation from the standard equipment or procedures. "And why is Private Loposhin's field cutter fixed on his right sleeve?"
"Half the DOG shipment didn't come in, sir," Gillies snapped, all too aware of the gleaming capsule in the corner of the ready room. "No frageware instructions. And Loposhin's left arm rider has a malfunctioning connect, sir, temporarily US."
"Then get him out and down to Cyber," Kjaskle snapped. "Memo to adjutant: 'Check tech workshop wait times. Report by 1200.' The DOG unit works doesn't it?"
"Ah, yes, sir," Gillies replied unhappily. "But I don't know the command phrases or its capabilities."
"It has an artificial persona, I believe, Sergeant," the CO replied. "Treat it like a real dog. The exercise will be delayed till the DOG unit is ready to deploy. You have fifteen minutes, Sergeant Gillies. Copy to all OC, Bridge, BrigCom. Ex restart 0335. And we'll change it to a planetary search and destroy. All subunits deploy to drop stations. Orders Group in ten."
Gillies snapped a salute, ordered the platoon to reequip for planet action and drop, and watched th e colonel's back as she marched on to the heavy weapons platoon ready room, the adjutant and RSM marching behind, catching a steady stream of orders.
"Treat it like a real dog," he muttered to himself. He'd forgotten the colonel's last assignment had been in Sol. Staff College on Mars. There were probably hundreds of dogs there. He tongued his impcom. "ComOp. Gillies. Get me BQMS Skuarren. Urgent."
Excerpted from The Best of Jim Baen's Universe by Eric Flint Copyright © 2007 by Eric Flint. Excerpted by permission.
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